Top language, top Bible, top people: Melvyn Bragg meets the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in English, Melvyn Bragg (a man not noted for his reliability on such matters—see my post for March 30th last year) managed to get himself a BBC documentary on the subject. (King James’ Bible: The Book that Changed the World) The credits say that he wrote it as well as narrated it, so all errors are his own, with the possible exception of the director’s decision to devote so much of the hour to close shots of Bragg’s face as he muses on his subject. This is always an error, even when the narrator is photogenic. Bragg, reading from his autocue, is an old man with distractingly young hair and a gaze point somewhere just above the viewer’s right eyebrow.


But I digress. The real point of this post is to unpick the bizarre thesis of the programme, namely that the true power of the Bible lay dormant for centuries until it was translated into English in 1611 by a committee of scholars working for King James. Yes, I am simplifying here somewhat, but that is because the lines of argument taken by Bragg are meandering and self-contradictory. Nevertheless¸ the main idea is that God’s word was inevitably muffled until it was made available to humanity through the sparkling medium of early Modern English, whereupon its effect was electric and immediate, inspiring  democratic revolutions, civil rights and all of modern science. 

The idea that language influences the way you are able to think is known as linguistic relativism. It is expressed most famously  in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which holds that, for example, the colour terms in your language influence how you see colour, the number terms influence the way you conceptualise quantity, the verb tenses influence the way you understand time, and so on. This idea, at least in its strongest form (that language actually controls thought) does not have much currency in modern Linguistics. True, there are bits of evidence here and there which seem to show that people are likely to think in particular ways because of their mother tongue, but generally speaking there is nothing that a bit of prompted awareness and  paraphrasing can’t overcome.

So, how about the idea that Biblical texts, trapped for generations in Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek and vulgate Latin, were not able to convey the true force of their message, even when they were read by people for whom these languages were their own mother tongues? After all, these  early readers of the Bible did not cry freedom and throw off the chains of ancient oppressors. They did not abolish slavery. They did not institute the idea of equality before the law. They did not start programmes of scientific enquiry. But the English, according to Bragg, once they had got the Bible into their own tongue, grasped its message at once and started political and scientific revolutions which changed the face of the world forever.

Bragg believes that the Word of God in English was utterly transformational. And yet, there is a problem with such a thesis. When the King James Bible was published in 1611, the English were already very familiar with the Bible in their own language. Even before the 13th century, many parts of the Latin Bible had been translated, and in the 14th century the whole thing was rendered into English by John Wycliffe . Many thousands of copies of this translation were in circulation but this inconvenient detail does not merit attention in Bragg’s documentary. He does mention William Tyndale who in the early 16th century had made another illegal translation of much of the Bible, for which crime he was strangled and burnt at the stake. Bragg never mentions Tyndale again. He ignores Myles Coverdale completely who made  an officially sanctioned Bible translation in 1538, basing it largely on Tyndale’s text. Bragg skates over the Geneva Bible of 1560 which was the next important translation and widely read throughout England. This was the Bible known to Shakespeare and to the early settlers in the American colonies. Again, it was largely based on Tyndale’s text. In 1572 came another official translation, the unloved  Bishops’ Bible, which failed to replace the Geneva Bible as the household favourite. None of this gets a passing mention by Bragg. His programme suggests the King James Version in 1611 was a spectacular new translation that took the country by storm, even though this too was largely based on Tyndale’s text, with the committee of translator-scholars paying close attention to doctrinal nuances rather than chucking it all out and starting afresh. So when the great work was done, people reading and listening to their new Bible would have recognised it at once as a familiar friend. There was nothing remotely revolutionary about it, and its language was already archaic.

Perhaps the heart of the problem in this programme is that Bragg is never clear in his own mind whether he is talking about Christianity, the Bible in English, or the King James version of the Bible in English. The three are hopelessly entangled in his narration. During the course of this documentary Bragg refers to the King James Bible as:

The seedbed of western democracy;

The maker of the western world;

The shaper of the English speaking world;

An influential strand in the development of democracy;

The  navigational compass when history changed direction with the American Declaration of Independence;

The instigator of the anti-slavery campaign;

The basis for the Civil Rights movement in the USA in the 1960s.

You might see the Christian message of love and peace as the mover and shaker for some of these things, or you might see the availability of the Christian message in the vernacular to the masses as the instigator of social justice, but it is very difficult to pin all this onto one particular translation of the Bible unless, as I said at the beginning, you invoke the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to explain why Christians didn’t get going on these radical projects around one thousand five hundred and eleven years before 1611.  Because Bragg repeatedly says it was the King James Bible and not any earlier Bible in English which kicked everything off,  we need a really strict version of the Hypothesis to explain its amazing effect, especially when you consider that the King James Bible is the Geneva Bible and Coverdale’s Bible and these are both pretty much Tyndale’s. Bragg’s confusion is summed up perfectly in his assertion that Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement was ‘earthed and birthed in the message of the King James Bible.’ For this we can read ‘in the message of Christianity’ or ‘in the message of the Bible’, and have a much more plausible argument than one that suggests only the King James Bible could have been this inspirational.

There is one last silliness in this programme which I must mention. Bragg claims that Newton was inspired by the King James Bible to seek after the ‘First Cause’  of Creation and that this lead to his seminal work on the laws of nature which in turn led to other major empirical advances in science in the 18th , 19th and 20th centuries right up to the CERN project, the Hadron-Collider and Higgs boson particle. There. All because the King James Committee got the wording right. Amazing.

This was a tedious and preposterous vanity project in which  Bragg says out loud a large number of baseless assertions which no serious scholar would ever countenance. Indeed he has no scholars sharing the screen with him to lend weight to his thesis, probably because any serious scholar would point out that powerful social and economic factors were vastly more influential than the King James Bible in creating the modern West, and that people all over seventeenth century Europe with no knowledge of English at all were nevertheless hatching the revolutionary and inspirational ideas that would transform the world. And at no point does Bragg do the kind of close-textual analysis you would need to support the idea that a text in one language is more potent than the same text in another. At the end one is driven to the conclusion that much of this documentary was made for the kind of American audience that never tires of hearing how special their country is, how important their revolution, how unique their devotion to freedom and democracy. No wonder then that for a good half of the programme Bragg is filmed wandering around the US and gazing upon such American icons as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. When he gets to visit an old church in which African slaves were comforted by the King James Bible, he fails entirely to note the irony of the situation.




14 thoughts on “Top language, top Bible, top people: Melvyn Bragg meets the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  1. Dw, I had some trouble with the formatting of this post, with bizarre and unsought changes of font and a missing paragraph. So I took it down and re-posted a tidier version, losing your comment in the process. I have taken your point about King James’ Bible vs the King James Bible

  2. Melvyn Bragg is a particularly irritating example of the kind of man who knows a little about knowledge, but not quite enough.By the way, you haven’t made it very easy for readers to find your old posts! It might have been helpful to link directly to your post of 30 March last year, or to include links somewhere obvious to past months, or something like that. Just a suggestion:)

  3. @Barrie: I can’t say because I’ve not listened to any of Stephen Fry’s programmes on language, partly because I like Stephen Fry and don’t want to be disappointed (though I generally avoid any TV and radio programmes about language in nay case, because they almost invariably annoy me). I read Melvyn Bragg’s history of English, however, and I listen to <i>In our Time</i> quite regularly, where he occasionally comes out with comments that reflect his bizarre triumphalist ideas about English.

  4. Stephen Fry does make me cringe, but not as much as Bragg does. There is much to admire in Mr Fry. His comic acting and his wit are pretty good. But the awful way he &nbsp;handles the QI quiz programme on television makes it impossible for me to watch. He corrects the contestants and gives the answers like a stupendous polymath. But the only advantage he has over them is that he has cards with the answers written on them. It baffles me how they stop themselves attacking him, the smug pretender. His stuff on the radio about the English Language was the same; Stephen Fry as patronising know-it-all when all he’s doing is reading a script

  5. The question of the Bible’s influence seems to replicate the whole Sapir-Whorf controversy in miniature. Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln were obviously inspired by the language of the King James Bible, a book they knew well, and the cadences and vocabulary of the Bible, as well as direct quotations, may be found in their speeches and writings. But the question arises: did they find their ideas about freedom and democracy in the King James, as you say Bragg suggests, or merely a convenient, if powerful, means of expressing them? The Bible is like Shakespeare: there’s an awful lot in there, and it may be extracted and used for just about any purpose. Slave owners and segregationists read and quoted it, too.

  6. Enjoying reading this site. I think the only way to avoid permanent fury and frustration at the cack-handed and ill-informed media treatment of language generally is to adopt a stance of head-shaking bemusment. It’s certainly better than being drawn into specifics. I always maintain that stupidity is the trump ard in any argument – profound ignorance, which can’t even see let alone acknowledge its own position, is incapable of being defeated.

  7. Yes, I tend to agree. Far too many people are proudly ignorant when it comes to their opinions because they don’t want their prejudices exposed and challenged. They will resist factual arguments no matter how strong these might be. On the other hand, I would hope at least some of the people who read this blog (such as my students) are interested in refutations because this can help clarify the basic tenets in Applied Linguistics.I’m not too bothered by the nit-wits. Over time, they all end up sounding like Victorian snobs railing against the vulgar word ‘bus’.

  8. Vocabulary questions aren’t all that interesting. (If you don’t have a word for telephones, do telephones exist?) But one thing that does make me wonder about thought and the structure of language is the unavoidable use of the possessive when talking about one’s own traits or even one’s person in totality. One speaks easily of "my consciousness," "my personality," "my brain," and even "my soul" as if to imply that there is an agent (the "I" behind the "my") over and above these things that somehow "possesses" them. Does this construct lead to the impression that the self is somehow independent of all of its various attributes? Have linguists ever dealt with this question?

  9. Perhaps the ‘my’ in ‘my brain’ and ‘my soul’ is only there to distinguish it from your soul’ and her brain. That’s how I would see it. I wonder if the meaning of language necessarily has to go deeper than that. But it’s an interesting question, and I don’t know if linguists have addressed it. Philosophers probably have…….

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